Wake up. And smell the tokenism – in all its rancid glory. India’s top skincare brand has moved – feel the ground shatter right beneath your feet – from whitening to brightening. FMCG behemoth Hindustan Unilever announced on 25 june that they will now “stop using the word ‘Fair’ in the brand name ‘Fair & Lovely’. Tada! The brand ‘woke’ up, at last. Massive move. I agree.
Now, I tried hard to emote on cue. Really hard. But nope, not even a trickle of enthu. Sorry, HUL. This means NOTHING. It is the same as saying, I am not a feminist. I believe in gender equality though.
Nope. Still offensive, still counterproductive.
Now, the exact words used in the press release put out by the company says the brand is now “progressing from fairness to glow which is a more holistic and inclusive measure of healthy skin”. Let’s break this down.
a) Moving from “fairness” to “glow” is like saying you've moving from whitening to de-tanning ie from extremely oppressive structures that enabled colourism, prejudice, and discrimination by favouring “fair, white skin” over all else to... extremely oppressive structures that still enable colourism, prejudice, and discrimination under the garb of “progress”. So maybe reserve that “glow” for a soul-searching session at an expensive spa funded by the truckloads of moolah made off of F&L creams sold over the years.
“We are making our skin care portfolio more inclusive and want to lead the celebration of a more diverse portrayal of beauty. In 2019, we removed the cameo with two faces as well as the shade guides from the packaging of Fair & Lovely and the brand communication progressed from fairness to glow which is a more holistic and inclusive measure of healthy skin. These changes were very well received by our consumers. We now announce that we will remove the word ‘Fair’ from our brand name Fair & Lovely. The new name is awaiting regulatory approvals, and the pack with the revised name will be available in the market in the next few months.”Sanjiv Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director, HUL
b) Let's talk “progress” now that the brand itself has brought it up. What's “progress” in a country that has been tossed around ruthlessly by history to such an extent that caste, as a social institution, has wreaked irreparable havoc on our sense of self? A fixation with skin colour, an offshoot of the caste system which has centred around birth and occupation primarily and used such distinctions to historically discriminate, has hampered “progress” for ages.
To add to this, we have had centuries of ‘white’ imperial rulers demolishing our self-worth through systemic racism. The prejudice against “dark skin” has had a crippling effect on identity and here's the deal, HUL – 'Fair and Lovely' was introduced to the market in 1975. That's 45 years!
So 45 years of ‘splaining “beauty” to us as “fairness” doesn’t go away when you flick your brand positioning and tweet out a boardroom decision. Women, particularly, have enough to undo anyway, without being gaslit by commerce that a “radiant”, “glowy” skin has nothing to do anymore with “fairness” and “whitening”.
The harmful associations still remain. Which sets us back. Yep, it is definitely a step in the right direction, I concede. But what exactly will this cream do for Indian women now?
Will social conditioning not make the consumer pay for the same benefits that the brand has been peddling all these years as the cornerstone of “beauty”?
“Radiance” is synonymous with “fair skin” in India. Courtesy fairness cream ads. One F&L ad, for example, shows a woman relegated as a “side” dancer at an audition on account of her “amavasya chehra” while a woman with “fair skin” gets to be the “main dancer”. It doesn't end there. Once she is whitewashed, quite disturbingly, she looks into the camera and tell us, with altered self-esteem, “chaand bhi sharma jaaye”. You know, that's how full fool-proof the white-washed “glow” is. Um. What?
Did the makers just decide to download their prejudice twice? Just in case once wasn’t enough?
So here's what we need from a behemoth like Hindustan Unilever right now:
a) We need billboards, preferably the size of male egoes, that shout out, “We are sorry we said ONLY fair is lovely. We are sorry we left countless women with a debilitating sense of self. We are sorry that we took 45 years to react to a cause. We are sorry that this opportunistic move comes right after the worldwide outrage against racism post George Floyd's death.
b) We need all those ridiculous ads taken down where not only are the associations between fair skin and beauty and success completely in bad taste but also excessively extra – one particularly distressing ad shows a father raging like hellfire because his daughter gets rejected by a “modern beauty company” on account of her appearance. Immediately he rummages his brain (or wherever ones stores such ridiculous knowledge) for antidotes, and, to no one's surprise, recommends an “ayurvedic Fair and Lovely” tube to her.
Of course, life changes drastically for her after this in a perfectly casteist, prejudiced world. Messed up harmony is restored.
c) We need the product off the market. If it isn't catering to “fairness”, what else could “radiance” mean? We still don't see women with darker skin colours playing the lead in “radiance” cream ads.
We also don’t need drastic “before” and “after” scenarios in these beauty ads – no beauty product should be glorified to an extent that it claims to alter a woman’s value and self-worth.
d) Lastly, we need you to call your own bluff out. Can the word “inclusivity”, quoted by the brand, be removed from all communication till HUL really means it?
Dove, Lakme, Axe, Pond's – these are all HUL brands that are either STILL selling fairness creams that peddle “whiteness” or deodorants that portray women as meaningless objects of sexual pleasure.
So yeah, HUL, tall talk. Take these products off the market.